Top Annuals for the All-Season Cutting Garden

Annuals for the cutting garden/Photo: Julie Hove Anderson Photography

As a landscape designer, I’m well versed in perennials and the kind of annuals you buy from a nursery. But when it comes to growing annuals from seeds, my experience centers mainly on zinnias. So recently, I was delighted to attend a webinar given by ButterBee Farm owner Laura Beth Resnick on the top annuals she grows for her cutting gardens.

Located in Pikesville, Maryland, ButterBee Farm specializes in growing flowers organically for florists, weddings, and flower lovers across the Maryland and DC areas. Established in 2013, the farm has since grown to encompass just around 5 acres. In addition to signature perennials such as peonies and ranunculus, Resnick grows ornamental foliage and thousands of annuals, both in the field and in heated and unheated greenhouses.

The goal, says Resnick, is to provide her customers with flowers and foliage all year-round.

One of ButterBee Farm’s cutting gardens/Photo: Julie Hove Anderson Photography

SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS

There’s so much to learn from Resnick and her wealth of plant knowledge. But today’s focus was on annuals for cutting. And annuals often have quite different needs from those of perennials. For example, while there are perennials that are built for sun and others for shade, annuals need at least 8 hours of sun a day. If your site is shady, it’s not the best location for a cutting garden.

Annuals like zinnias grow best in full sun/Photo: Here By Design

According to Resnick, if you want to successfully grow annuals for cutting, you need three things:

And lots of sun can mean high water needs. Cutting gardens need constant monitoring to make sure thirsty plants are getting enough moisture. Unlike perennials, annuals are shallow-rooted, meaning their roots are located close to the soil surface. They dry out fast once the surface water has evaporated.

Annuals are shallow-rooted

But even with lots of sun and diligent watering, your cutting garden can sometimes under-perform if you don’t know what kind of soil you’re dealing with. Resnick stresses the importance of getting a soil test before planting.

“It’s kind of like getting your blood work done,” she said.

Soil pH, for example, can have a huge effect on plants. And it can determine what kinds of minerals are available.

Good soil is essential to the life of a garden/Photo: shutterstock.com

Luckily, getting a soil test is easier than ever – just dig up some samples, put them in a plastic bag and ship them off to a soil analysis center. You can find them through university extension offices, Agro Lab, or my personal favorite, University of Delaware. They email you the results complete with recommendations for how to improve your soil for what you want to grow. 

A GREAT CUTTING GARDEN TAKES PLANNING

Unlike perennials, which come up on schedule year after year, if you’re growing annuals from seeds, it takes some planning. And if you’re growing annuals for a cutting garden, it’s best to start backward. That means, start by determining when you want to have things blooming and then work backward to when you have to plant.

Days to Flower is a key term to remember when purchasing a seed packet. It refers to the amount of days it takes from when the seed germinates until the day it’s ready to be harvested. Some packets won’t tell you, so you may have to do a google search. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, though, does. And Resnick says it’s a good quick stop.

Below is an example of a chart Resnick uses to determine when to plant June annuals for her cutting garden. 

KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR

Finally, even the most seasoned of gardeners have failures. No two seasons are alike. Taking notes on what happens each year is really helpful. Resnick stresses creating a planting calendar and referring back to it when making your selections.

Most importantly, when choosing annuals for cutting, strive for diversity. Not everything you try is going to work out. Plant a bunch of different things that bloom in spring, summer and fall. It’s a good way to hedge your bets.

Laura Beth Resnick, Owner ButterBee Farm/Photo: Julie Hove Anderson Photography

TOP ANNUALS FOR CUTTING

Below are Resnick’s top annuals for the cutting garden, organized by season.

SPRING ANNUALS

Bachelor’s Button, a cool-season annual/Photo credit: shutterstock.com

Larkspur– Resnick direct seeds annual larkspur (which is different from the perennial) in the fall between Sept 15 and October 15. Favorite varieties are Early Grey and the QIS series.

Snapdragon– She loves Chantilly and Madame Butterfly, which she plants in the fall and Rocket and Potomac, which she plants in the spring. She pinches her plants to encourage branching.

Bachelor’s Button (Blue Cornflower)- She direct seeds in the fall. Try Black or Blue Magic. These flowers love to re-seed.

Feverfew– If you plant in the fall, feverfew will bloom earlier in the spring. If you plant in the spring, it will bloom later. Resnick likes the single-flowered Virgo variety. 

Scabiosa– She plants in the fall and spring. Her favorite varieties include Ping Pong, Black Knight, and the creamy apricot Fata Morgana.

SUMMER ANNUALS

Deep red sunflower variety ‘Moulin Rouge’/Photo: shutterstock.com

Sunflowers–  Resnick plants sunflower seeds every week in summer. ‘You can plant them every week and you’ll have them every week,’ she said. She plants the seeds close together for smaller flower heads, which look better in vases. Favorite varieties include Moulin Rouge (above) and the Procut Series.

Zinnias– She plants every 3 weeks for continuous bloom through fall. Aztec, Persian Carpet (also called Mexican zinnia), Queen Red or Queen Orange are her favorites.

Strawflower- ‘This is what is called ‘everlasting,’ said Resnick. ‘When it blooms, it’s already dried.’ She plants in the spring. Good varieties include Apricot, Purple-red and Silvery Rose

Cosmos- She plants seeds every 3 weeks in summer and pinches plant tips to promote branching. Resnick prefers the Double Click series over the single flower. It is a little more resilient in the heat. 

Celosia– Resnick recommends planting every 2 weeks, from summer to fall. She recommends the Sunday and Chief series. If your budget allows, the Bombay series has the most unusual colors. 

FALL ANNUALS

Pink gomphrena/Photo: shutterstock.com

Hairy Balls– These are excellent focal flowers, albeit a little strange. They are part of the milkweed family, whose flowers are the only flowers monarch butterflies will eat. Plant seeds in spring or early summer but be mindful of the sap. If you get it in your eyes, it can send you to the hospital.

Marigolds (Tagetes)- Make sure to purchase the cutting variety, not the bedding one, which is short. Resnick plants seeds from summer to fall. She likes the Jedi series, Tagetes erecta, known to be the most disease tolerant and tallest of the cutflower series.

Gomphrena– She plants from summer to fall. Check out the QIS series and Audray series.

Ornamental Kale- She plants from late summer to fall. There are so many different, amazing varieties featuring unusual colors and foliage. Resnick likes the tall variety, Crane, and its feather-leafed version ‘Feather’. Plant in late summer to fall.

Dahlias– Okay, these aren’t seeds, but they are stalwarts of the late summer garden. Plant in early summer. In Maryland, we plant our tubers in June. Resnick loves Cornel Bronze, Nathalie g, Cafe au Lait, and Jowie Linda. Plant 15” apart.

Ready to plant? I am. It’s late July in Maryland, but it’s clear from Resnick’s chart that there is still plenty of time to sow annual seeds. Make sure to check your Plant Hardiness Zone, though. Resnick’s charts are built for her area of Maryland, which is zone 7a – 7b. All links are for informational purposes only, and are not paid links. 

Looking for more great ideas? Check out ButterBee Farm’s instagram at @butterbee_farm. 

 

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 What's That Flower app

Now that we’re all spending more time at home, it doesn’t hurt to know what’s blooming. And finding the answer is easier than ever with one of the dozens of plant identification apps available. But which ones work best and provide the fastest, most reliable material? I decided to do a comparison. Continue reading

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Cool-season flowering plants

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Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage but it’s also one of only a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading

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sedum autumn joy in the garden

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Just the other day, I was working with a bunch of Master Gardeners preparing a garden for the county fair when one of them noticed a bare space. Sure enough, in one of the central beds, a group of plants had recently given up the ghost on a prominent corner. In no time, we all agreed that a lacy evergreen would be the perfect replacement. And that’s when I suggested chamaecyparis. Continue reading

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Dreamy Dahlias: 10 Ways To Identify Your Perfect Type

A cactus dahlia blooming in my garden

Without some advance planning, fall usually spells the end of the summer garden. But I’ve learned from experience that if you plant dahlias in late spring, they’ll flower all the way through autumn. Lately, I’ve been waking up to crisp mornings only to discover more and more blooms. Who knew October could bring so many fresh flowers?

DAHLIAS BRING OUT THE CHILD

For some, dahlias may not be all that big a deal. But for me, the first time I saw the majestic, 10-foot flowers left an indelible memory. It was the 1960s, and I was a kid growing up in Delaware. Smack dab in the middle of suburbia, on the corner of two heavily-traveled streets, there was a small working farm. In the summer it produced fruits and vegetables. But in September, it became a sea of dahlias.

And these weren’t your everyday dahlias, mind you. Many were the gigantic, dinner plate size; the kind that drives a kid mad with desire to jump out of the car just to be among them. Standing as tall as adults, they gently swayed in the breeze, solemnly saluting us as we drove by. 

Craning my neck out the window, I’d watch until they gradually disappeared, slowly dissolving into a sea of rainbow colors.

And thus began my love affair with these beautiful flowers.

SO MANY TYPES, SO LITTLE TIME

Dahlias are classified as tender perennials, meaning they may be annual or perennial, depending on the climate. They typically start blooming in August with other late-summer flowers. But perhaps the best thing about them is that they don’t stop blooming until the first frost, or roughly right around Thanksgiving.

And in spite of their reputation for towering stems and gigantic blooms, the plants come in all shapes and sizes. Dahlia types can range in height from the very tall specimens of my childhood to just under one foot. Planting the tubers is easy. Just dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and drop them in with the ‘eyes’ facing up. Three or more tubers per hole usually gives the most colorful effect.

FLOWERS AS BIG AS A FOOT

Still, it goes without saying that the most notable feature of all dahlias are the flowers. These can range in diameter from 2 inches to almost one foot. And among these, there are specific dahlia types, each with its own specifications. For example, there are species with single, double and semi-double petals. And there are unusual shapes like spherical or cactus. There are also types that resemble flowers such as anemones, peonies or orchids.

waterlily dahlia 'Pam Hayden'

Waterlily dahlia ‘Pam Howden’

Despite the variety, however, one thing all dahlia types have in common are their dazzling colors. These flowers come in a seemingly infinite array, including all shades of pink, red, scarlet, orange, purple and yellow. Moreover, the flower petals often come painted with strips or tips of another color. (There are also creamy ones as well as many brilliant white species.) 

In sum, with so many options to choose from, how do you decide? One way is to familiarize yourself with the most common types. You may be surprised to find that some don’t look like the ‘typical’ dahlia. 

THE TEN MOST COMMON DAHLIA TYPES

Single-flowered dahlias feature a single row of flat or slightly cupped ray petals surrounding a central disc.

single-flowered dahlia

Single-flowered dahlia

Semi-double dahlias have two or more rows of petals surrounding a central disc.

semi-double dahlias

Semi-double dahlias

Mignon dahlias are similar to single dahlias except their petal florets are rounded and their disc flowers have no more than two rows.

mignon dahlia

Mignon dahlia with burgundy/black foliage

Anemone dahlias have an inner disc made up of tubular shaped florets and an outer ring of one or more rows of flat ray petals.

anemone dahlia 'Polka'

Anemone dahlia ‘Polka’

Orchid dahlias have open centers with just one row of ray florets surrounding a disc. The petals are often overlapping and curled for most of their length.

orchid dahlia

Orchid dahlia

Collarette dahlias have one row of flat petals surrounding a disc as well as an inner wreath of shorter petals called the ‘collar’.

collarette dahlia

Collarette dahlia ‘Mary Eveline’ plum red petals with white ‘collar’

Ball and Pompon dahlias are shaped like balls and feature double flowers with rounded or blunt tipped florets. Pompons are slightly smaller than ball dahlias.

pompom dahlias

Orange ball dahlias – notice the slightly flattened shape

pompom dahlia

The perfectly round pompon dahlia ‘Franz Kafka’

Decorative dahlias are doubles that feature flat, oval petals with tips on the end. Formal varieties have regular, evenly placed petals, while informal varieties tend to be arranged in a more haphazard way. Both varieties grow to over 40 inches.

decorative dahlia 'Lisa Dark Pink'

Decorative dahlia ‘Lisa Dark Pink’

Cactus and semi-cactus dahlias have narrow pointed petals that roll back on themselves, giving them a spiky look. Cactus types are rolled for their full length, while semi cactus types include a mix of flat and rolled petals. Both reach an average height of around 40 inches.

cactus dahlia

Orange cactus dahlia

semi-cactus dahlia 'Aloha'

Semi-cactus dahlia ‘Aloha’

There are many other varieties, including peony, waterlily and stellar, not to mention the celebrated ‘Dinner Plate’ which falls under numerous categories. The Miscellaneous Dahlias category alone includes hundreds of varieties.

Ready to add dahlias to your garden? Every year, among the ten top things I want to achieve or change in my garden, I resolve to plant more. Here’s how.

WHEN TO PLANT DAHLIAS

Dahlias are sold as tubers and need to be planted after the ground has warmed up and there’s no danger of frost. I usually plant mine in the late spring just around the time my tulips have faded. Plant the tubers in well drained soil in full sun for best results. You can also pot them up indoors a couple weeks beforehand to give them a head start.

dahlia tubers

Dahlia tubers need to winter indoors in a cool, but not cold, space

Dahlias are considered tender in my neck of the woods (Zone 6), but hardy outdoors in zones 8 to 10. That means that once they’re done flowering in the fall (or right after the first frost), I must dig them up. I then label them and store them in a dry spot in the basement. Click here for the USDA Plant Hardiness Map to see where you fit. 

Want to learn more? Visit Longwood Gardens’ annual dahlia show, held each year in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Looking for a great place to buy tubers? Check out the beauties at Eden Brothers, one of my favorite online sources.

 

 

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My September garden

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